What do investigative reporters look like before they publish a big scoop? The new documentary Collective offers us a glimpse. Catalin Tolontan, a Romanian journalist, sits in his office in central Bucharest a few hours before deadline. Tolontan removes his rimless glasses. He rubs his eyes. He sighs. His calm lets us know he has gotten the story. His melancholy indicates he knows how awful it is.
In 2015, a fire at a Bucharest nightclub called Colectiv killed 26 people. Thirty-eight more died later, many in Romanian hospitals, thanks to a lethal blend of corruption and incompetence. Tolontan’s newspaper is about to report that a local manufacturer sold hospitals diluted disinfectant. “This isn’t killing bacteria,” a source tells the paper. “It’s killing people.”
Five months of digging by Tolontan’s staff had produced documents, lab tests, even a photo of the company’s owner in his Porsche. Now, Tolontan indulges in newsroom paranoia. “Could they be so wicked as to feed us fake documents?” he asks Mirela Neag, a reporter. The documents are real. The clock ticks toward deadline.
“Do you have a headache?” Tolontan asks Neag.
“No,” she says.
“Let’s call the minister of health.”
Tolontan calls the man. As he speaks, he places a hand across his chest, as if asking for comment was a ceremonial act like saying the pledge of allegiance. The health minister won’t comment. The story is published. Two weeks later, the minister resigns.
Collective is a celebration of investigative reporting that was just short-listed for two Oscars. Tolontan is its Ben Bradlee and John Carreyrou. What’s striking is that Tolontan’s scoops ran in a sports newspaper, Gazeta Sporturilor. “Even now,” Tolontan told me over Zoom last week, “I am proud to be a sport journalist.”
In the United States, we’ve gotten used to sportswriters elbowing their way into our political theater. Sportswriters covered the campaign. They owned Donald Trump on Twitter. In one case, they offered him debate tips. Tolontan charted a different course. He became a feared investigative reporter and a sports newspaper became one of the few outlets the public could trust.
Catalin Tolontan was born in Bucharest in 1968. He is part of Romania’s decreței, the generation born during the period after Communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu issued a near-total ban on abortion and contraception. Tolontan created his own journalistic education. He read a British handbook and watched movies like All the President’s Men. He dreamed of being a reporter like the ones he saw in the movies.
When Ceausescu was ousted in 1989, Romania’s media at first entered a boom period. “In six months, we had more than 100 daily national newspapers,” said Tolontan. The new journalistic class served as a check against the former communists who controlled the government. Tolontan edited a daily newspaper called ProSport, then took over Gazeta Sporturilor in 2003.
In 2007, Romania joined the European Union. The country’s rush to privatize its economy, a condition of EU membership, allowed local moguls to buy up newspapers and TV networks. The moguls, who had little interest in nosy journalists, shut down some outlets and turned others into partisan instruments. “The media, having had a bright role for 15 years, entered the twilight zone,” said Tom Gallagher, the author of Theft of a Nation: Romania Since Communism.
One such media mogul was Dan Voiculescu, whose Antena TV stations sought to “create an atmosphere in which you could trust no one,” said Gallagher. Voiculescu spent three years in prison after being convicted of money laundering and fraud. Voiculescu also owned Gazeta Sporturilor.
Gazeta is a daily sports paper in the style of France’s L’Équipe and Italy’s La Gazzetta dello Sport. An issue costs 2.5 lei—about 60 cents. Tolontan said Gazeta sells about 10,000 copies a day in print (20,000 before the pandemic) and draws 3.5 million unique users each month to its website. Its readership cuts across social class. When Collective director Alexander Nanau got on an airplane in Bucharest, he was surprised to see more than half the passengers reading Gazeta.
Gazeta’s focus is on sports, not politics. “We can make investigations only because we wrote about football, about soccer,” said Tolontan. If Tolontan had a juicy investigative piece, he often slapped it on the back cover of the paper and put the big soccer match of the day on the front. The photographers who staked out the newspaper’s political subjects doubled as action photographers at the matches.
Much of Gazeta’s sports muckraking (athlete doping, fudged passports for gymnasts) would be recognizable to the Fainaru brothers. But over the past decade, sports investigations led Gazeta’s reporters into the bigger arena. In 2009, the paper began investigating Monica Iacob Ridzi, who ran Romania’s Ministry of Youth and Sport. Ridzi was sentenced to five years in prison for misusing public funds.
In 2011, Gazeta began investigating Elena Udrea, Romania’s equivalent of the HUD secretary, for using government funds to sponsor a boxing match. Udrea was sentenced to six years in prison and fled to Costa Rica. (Her sentence was later suspended.)
Tolontan talks like Humphrey Bogart in Deadline—U.S.A. “We’re a newsroom, not a courtroom,” he said, swearing off any interest in the legal fortunes of his subjects. He later added: “The real owner of a newspaper is the public.”
Tolontan has a quietly insistent manner—“vehement and accusing,” a media sparring partner says in Collective, accidentally offering a compliment. He has an editor’s knack for packaging a story. The company that sold diluted disinfectant to hospitals, he said, conducted an “experiment” on Romanians.
The Ridzi story showed off Tolontan’s independent streak. During its investigation, Gazeta discovered links between Ridzi and Dan Voiculescu, the paper’s owner. Tolontan published a photo of the two together. “For me, Catalin Tolontan no longer exists,” Voiculescu declared at the time. According to Tolontan, the two men stopped speaking, and Voiculescu never offered congratulations for the Colectiv nightclub scoops. But Tolontan continued to edit Gazeta, which was very profitable.
When it comes to the government, Tolontan is fond of saying, there’s a thin line between corruption and incompetence. The Colectiv nightclub fire showed both. On Oct. 30, 2015, a band called Goodbye to Gravity was playing a free show at Colectiv. “Fuck all your wicked corruption!” they sang. “It’s been there since our inception. But we couldn’t see.”
The band’s firework effects caused the club to catch fire. In Collective, we see footage that shows the initial moments of confusion. “Something’s on fire here,” a band member says. He calls for a fire extinguisher. The fire spreads quickly across the club’s ceiling. Then the stampede for the door begins. In the footage, we see images of flames and jostling bodies. The sound inside the club is like a windstorm.
Twenty-seven people died at the scene, including every member of the band except its lead singer. The fire had a shattering effect on Romania, leading to a three-day period of national mourning and the resignation of the prime minister. Then came a second horror story: 37 more people died while they were being treated for their injuries. “How could people who escaped the fire still die in hospitals 12 days later?” a victim’s family member asks in the film.
The answer was a series of interlocking scandals. As The Wrap noted, selling diluted disinfectant to hospitals is like Harry Lime’s scheme in The Third Man. “The way a state functions can crush people sometimes,” a reformist health minister tells victims of the fire in Collective. “You all got the full blow of a dysfunctional state, its corruption, and its health care system.”
In November 2015, Tolontan found a tip in his inbox. “I remember very well,” he said. “It was morning in the newsroom.” Camelia Roiu, an ICU anesthesiologist, had written to Tolontan to say she didn’t particularly like him. But nobody else would listen to her testimony about burn victims being killed in hospitals by infections. “We saved them from a fire bomb and they died in a germ bomb!” Roiu would later say.
After Gazeta started breaking stories about the Colectiv fire, Nanau, an observational documentarian, approached Tolontan about making a film. “At first, I told him, ‘No way,’” said Tolontan. “I was so narrow-minded.” Tolontan worried about his anonymous sources.
So Tolontan and Nanau made a deal. When whistleblowers came into the Gazeta office, Nanau had five minutes to convince them to let him film their interviews. When Nanau finished the film, he screened it for the whistleblowers and allowed them to change their minds. Only one did, according to Nanau.
One of the startling things about Collective is that it shows what interviews with whistleblowers really look like. One night, Roiu meets Tolontan and Neag in Gazeta’s office. “What can I tell you?” says Roiu. “They were all killed by various bacterial infections. … That’s what they are hiding.”
“Hospital infections?” asks Neag.
“So the infections killed them?” asks Tolontan.
“Yes,” says Roiu. She adds: “Once infected with this, they don’t stand a chance.”
Later, Roiu returns to Tolontan’s office with a horrifying video: a burn victim’s wound wasn’t cleaned properly, and now it crawls with maggots. Two women from a hospital’s accounting department arrive, bearing documents, to accuse a manager of stealing funds. When the women say the manager demanded his phony invoices be paid “urgently,” Tolontan flashes a grim smile. It’s a detail.
We see familiar scenes of newsroom life, too. Tolontan polices Gazeta’s comment section. (Calling public health scandals “genocide” is OK, he decides, but threatening violence is a step too far.) When Tolontan confirms a story with a source over the phone, he pumps his fist and opens his mouth in a silent cheer.
Just as Trumpist TV hosts try to discredit their legitimate counterparts, Tolontan was challenged by other journalists. A month after Gazeta’s initial story, Dan Condrea, the owner of the company that sold diluted disinfectant, died in a single-car accident that many suspected was suicide. “A press investigation has sent a man to his grave,” a TV host tells Tolontan.
“All I’m trying to do,” Tolontan says in the movie, “is give people … more knowledge about the powers that shape our lives.” He adds: “It’s my profession, however disturbing.”
There are a couple of reasons a sports journalist found himself at the center of Romanian politics. One has to do with the particular shape of the media. In the decade after Romanian moguls gobbled up newspapers and TV stations, many outlets became “political propaganda tools” where “self-censorship is a rule of survival,” according to the watchdog group Reporters Without Borders. A rough parallel would be Fox News and OAN hosts having an even noisier role in American life.
Gazeta, Tolontan explained, is different. “As a sport journalist, we are trained from the first day not to please the public,” he said. Gazeta can’t be partisan, even in the sense of favoring one soccer club over another. It would blow everything. It would ruin the paper’s credibility with sports fans. So Gazeta assumes a nonpartisan stance that’s similar to an American newspaper.
When Gazeta launched political investigations, it handled them the same way. It made its investigations fact-finding missions rather than fact-massaging missions. The paper’s approach, in turn, attracted whistleblowers. “Basically, they had more trust in them as sports investigative journalists than in other journalists,” said Nanau. In Collective, two women tell Tolontan they want him to report on corruption so the government won’t cover it up.
The fact that Gazeta is a sports newspaper, rather than a partisan organ, had a soothing effect on readers. “When they enter on our website, they are not left-wing or right-wing supporters,” said Tolontan. “They are only supporters of teams for the football game.”
As Tolontan sees it, a political investigation that’s sandwiched between match reports is one that’s more likely to be read with an open mind. In a funny way, sports suppresses the public’s passions. “If you are going [to] a sport newspaper, you are less skeptical,” said Tolontan. “This is a huge advantage for us in the last 20, 25 years.”
Tolontan occupies a unique place in the Romania media. “The best investigations are made by a sports daily!” a man at the May 6, 2016, street protests in Bucharest yelled. “That’s the state of our press.” The crowd chanted, “To-lon-tan! To-lon-tan!” How many sports journalists have had their names chanted by a crowd, at least in a positive sense?
In 2018, Gazeta Sporturilor was bought by Ringier, a Swiss media company. Tolontan, who has already had one heart operation, decided he’d completed his tour in the editor’s chair. He became an editorial coordinator of Gazeta and Libertatea, a daily he compares to a New York tabloid. Tolontan’s job is to juice up Libertatea’s investigative reporting. While Gazeta continues to do investigative work in sports, the pure political investigations now run in Libertatea.
Tolontan’s new job was supposed to be less stressful. But that “proved to be a chimera,” he told me. On Saturday, he and Mirela Neag published a story about Romania’s Institute of Virology. “What did the Pandemic Institute of Virology do?” the headline reads. “Director Carmen Diaconu: ‘I can’t tell you. The projects are secret!’”
After Tolontan watched All the President’s Men, he followed Woodward and Bernstein into investigative reporting. With the release of Collective, he joined them on screen, as movie journalists who confront the powerful with untucked shirts and slouched shoulders. I keep thinking of the scene when Tolontan walks into the Gazeta newsroom before deadline. “Guys,” he tells the staff, “we got them!”